Tuesday, 16 November 2010


15/11/10, Hampstead

1 hr 20 mins, no interval. Athol Fugard's latest (and directed by him as well), a two-hander set in a graveyard for "the nameless ones", tended by an old man with a spade, Simon, to which comes a white train driver looking for the grave of the young woman with a baby who stepped out in front of his train and killed herself, locking eyes with him briefly as she did so He has been traumatised by the incident.

Inspired by a newspaper cutting Fugard found in 2000, which the train driver carries with him and reads out at one point. Presumably it's the real cutting, though if it is the journalist who wrote it needs to go a few rounds with someone like Harry Evans. (Question: Does it make a difference that the play is set in South Africa ten years ago? Have things got better or worse since?)

It's a bleak fable in which the driver, driven almost mad by PTSD, nightmares and hallucinations, eventually concludes that the young woman killed herself in the absence of hope. In the process he finds a hint of peace but is killed by gangsters in the night while digging a grave with Simon's spade. In an equally bleak Coda Simon tells us that he lost his job as a result... and his spade.

Bleak, but "beautifuly acted" seemed to be consensus. Owen Sejake was Simon, a big slow-moving, taciturn bear of man with some lovely lyrical passages in which he remembered his childhood, though most of the time he just sat and listened. Sean Taylor was the train driver, nervy, voluble, though we thought his accent slipped now and then: he is South African, though now married to an Australian where he spends a lot of time, but perhaps he was brought up as the kind of posh white South African who speaks English RP.

It's mostly in English but with short passages in Afrikaans and occasional snatches of Xhosa.

Good set by Saul Radomsky: a rubbish-strewn sandy waste with humps for the graves and a hole where one is being dug. A primitive wire fence around the back. In one corner a cutaway of the interior of Simon's shack ("boondock"?) where he lives at a level barely above subsistence and where the train driver stays with him. The rubbish -- car hubs, old lamps nameless bits of rusting machinery -- turns out to have a purpose, marking the graves. The driver is shocked by what he sees as a lack of respect for the dead and tried to replace the junk with crosses made from stones and pebbles. Simon tells him the junk is there to make sure he doesn't dig in the same place twice.

What does it say about South Africa? That it is (or was in 2000) still a profoundly unequal, violent and poverty-stricken place where many have no hope. That it is possible for blacks and whites to bond across the divide. But that just when you think you're getting somewhere the violence erupts and it all comes crashing down.

There are shades of Beckett, but like Beckett it's all frustratingly inconclusive and allusive. But my understanding was enriched.

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